• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Off the rails

The Otago Central Rail Trail is a mecca for cyclists.

"What's two and two?"Arf, arf, arf, arf."How old are you?"Arf, arf, arf." Pregnant pause. "Arf - arf, aaaarf."

"Good boy," praises Mike, owner of an emporium of pre-loved goods and also of Mister, the numerate - and obviously six-year-old - miniature terrier.

It's impromptu showtime on a footpath in Omakau, a village waypoint on the mountain-biking mecca known as the Otago Central Rail Trail. It's still early, but Mister is pure pro.

It says much about Omakau - cafe, Four Square, pub, toy library - that Mike doesn't bother bringing in his shopfront display of wares each night. I can see why he'd leave sculptures wrought from old iron railway fixtures; they're too big and heavy to nick. But that old bicycle could tempt light fingers, especially with some air in its tyres.

While I muse on such matters, the spur-of-the-moment routine draws my friends into a small but enthusiastic crowd - and not simply as an excuse to delay wedging our sore bums onto cycle seats for the final leg of the 150km ride.

Mike and Mister are just two of the delights that three days on the dusty trail have delivered. It's hospitality Otago-style - dry as sun-baked tussock, expansive as any Grahame Sydney painting.

Take Eric, the host of the historic Wedderburn Hotel; a refugee from Auckland's hospitality industry, he has an uncanny knack for remembering names, a relaxed approach to proprietorship and a generous way with new-found friends.

"Because I like you," says Eric, "I'll tell you about the short cut. We get some real aholes in here, and I don't tell them about it. I just wave and smile as they pedal uphill, the long way round."

Down the line at Oturehua's pub and general store, laconic locals empathise with a cyclist's gripe that the doors at Lauder Hotel, a few kilometres up-trail, were barred. It is sacrilege in such heat. "That's what happens when you let two women run a pub," observes our corpulent host in Southern-Man style. Behind him is yet another poster of that leathery cowboy, once just a beer ad but now the South's proud provincial brand, an image stuck faster than sheep st to a Drizabone.

The trail itself describes a pretty much pancake-flat and dusty horseshoe from Middlemarch to Clyde. Its gentle grades were hewn to link Dunedin with inland goldfields but the last wagons rolled in 1990, when new rules allowed road rigs to carry goods over unrestricted distances. Climate change may hog headlines in today's struggle to cut vehicle emissions, but less than 20 years ago it played no part in the debate over whether to save or pave the 85-year-old line.

As is often the case, there was a silver lining. The track's reincarnation as a cycling trail has kick-started small-town Otago's economy. In 2005, more than 10,000 pedallers poured more than $6 million into local pockets.

Mike, Mister's master and Omakau's answer to Steptoe and Son, agrees. Nine years ago he moved back, dismayed at the demise of Otago's rural heartland and keen to aid its revival. Back then, he says, his was the only shop open on Omakau's main drag. Today, thanks to the growing tourist boom, a farmer's wife runs the cafe, the one-horse town has at least seven accommodation options and, in the high summer season, Mike does a roaring trade in gel seats and foam padding.

Because he likes us, he also shares local intelligence. Ditch the last section between Alexandra and Clyde - it's hot, straight and dull. Instead, the true right of the swift, blue Clutha offers a fast single track, under willows and past high herringbone tailings of old gold dredgings. It's shady, quick and a fun way to finish.

The Otago Central Rail Trail could be boring. Flat, often straight, it offers few physical challenges besides sunburn and a head wind. But this outdoor experience is not about being hard - it's a social happening, of particular appeal to family groups and female cohorts.

The dry Otago air means plenty of historic distractions are preserved on, or near, the route. There are arcane oddities to experience, like curling at nearby Naseby's indoor ice rink. For those into art deco, Ranfurly is an unexpected surprise. And parts of the landscape are beautiful; clichéd though it is to say so, this a ride through a Grahame Sydney canvas.

But for us, the trail's hallmark is its hospitality - from Michelle at Hyde Hotel, who joins guests for an hour of Coro Street, to the women running the (very open) Lauder Hotel, who surrender the shade of a willow to bring us iced tea and chocolates. Like all good old-fashioned hospitality, the Central Otago kind cannot be taken for granted. But those who earn it are justly rewarded.